David Green

David Green (Books) is the imprint under which I publish booklets of my own poems, when there are sufficient of them. Apart from that, the website has become what it is. I hope you find at least some of it worthwhile.

Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

Were The Beatles a 'rock' band? This was the question that briefly diverted Christmas for some of my family. Oh, Babe, what would you say?
The game to be played was the Five Second Rule game in which players have to name three things in a given category in five seconds. Some discussion took place when the category was 'rock band' and one answer offered was The Beatles. Some readers might be surprised to hear that I was not involved in the controversy, neither suggesting them nor objecting to the answer. The rules of the game state that any disputes should be settled by debate among the players. Now, there would be a recipe for an acrimonious Christmas if it were allowed to get out of hand. But luckily Laura was playing, it's her game and she's good at deciding things so it didn't take long to sort out. Don't read any further if esoteric discussion on arcane issues is not something you enjoy.
The subject was passed to me after The Beatles were disallowed and I said Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden. There wouldn't be much dispute about them being rock bands.
The Beatles began as something like a rock'n'roll band before the idea of a 'rock band' had been thought up, I might suggest. But before The Beatles split, there were such acts as the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Cream, the Yardbirds and suchlike that were probably where the term originated. It is big, loud music, usually played on electric guitars, often by long-haired white blokes but none of those elements are part of a defintion because, as ever, these categories are too vague to be quite so specifically defined.
By 1970, The Beatles had recorded such things as Revolution, I am the Walrus and Helter Skelter which were surely identifiable as rock music. It's a bit like asking if J.S.Bach was a 'classical' composer. Well, not really but classical music, like that of Mozart and Haydn, wouldn't have happened without the music that he and his contemporaries wrote.
It's not a very good question if the game can't provide a complete list of acceptable answers and that list would go on to almost forever, not stopping after Deep Purple, Queen, U2, etc..
The game couldn't become an Olympic sport. I have some sympathy with the contestant who didn't realize how strict the refereeing was going to be and I'd probably have allowed it although I was outvoted anyway. But were The Beatles a rock band. Possibly not because they were more than that.
But the decision going against the answer handed the initiative in the game to me and I went on to win, as can sometimes happen in such games, but the question raised was much bigger than the simple result of a Christmas parlour game.
Christmas also included my first experience of Netflix, which was something I never thought I'd have call for. But the BBC's 2002 production of Daniel Deronda was found on there just in time for me to spend three and a half hours watching it. It was useful revision as I try to keep all of George Eliot's novels in mind before assembling some thoughts about them as a whole but, more importantly, it was a wonderful thing. Hugh Bonneville was imperious and sinister in his controlling role as Grandcourt, a parallel with Eliot's similarly manipulative Tito in Romola. One is glad to remember that not all of Mary Ann Evans' male characters are quite so dark or her credentials would be vulnerable to accusations of a skewed feminism but these represent the bad world that Gwendolen and Romola are put into conflict with and not necessarily the full story of the Eliot view of the male.
It is a glorious piece of television, the 700 pages of the novel distilled to three and a half hours as sensitively and economically as possible by Andrew Davies and raised the status of the novel for me just when it was fading rapidly.
Don Poli duly delivered the Christmas Nap. After a scrap. It wasn't my intention to tip an odds on shot but we were lucky to get an SP of 4/6 in the end. Having looked forward to the tremendous programme of Christmas racing, it broke up somewhat from a gambling point of view as so many races were left with odds on favourites. Maybe there are too many good races or not enough good horses to contest them all and at present, perhaps to the detriment of the sport, too many of the top horses are trained in Ireland, mostly by Willie Mullins, but that's not his fault.
But there can be no complaints about the King George, Faugheen, Sprinter Sacre, Ar Mad and the fact that, once The Libertines are confirmed as Best Band in the NME poll, I'll be able to wrap up the account for 2015 by moving enough cash from the bookies into the bank to make it officially my best year ever and carry over some stake money to begin 2016 with.
Coming soon, some words on The Importance of Elsewhere, Philip Larkin's Photographs and my words of introduction to the Portsmouth Poetry Society's forthcoming meeting on the poetry of Rosemary Tonks. Do come to that if you can, on Jan 20th.
And, in the meantime, Best Wishes, HNY and we will make our way with some trepidation into yet another year. 

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Christmas Message

It was on the b side of Solid Gold Easy Action. I don't think there's any need for me to look that up.

A brief but heartwarming message from Marc that I'd like to echo here.

I'd like to wish you a Superfunk Christmas and a Golden New Year.

Friday, 18 December 2015

The Christmas Nap

The Saturday Nap is home and hosed having run on Thursday and put us back into the black. I'm sorry it was only returned at 8/11 but where else can get 72% interest on a day's investment. The success or failure of this Autumn's feature all depends on the final Christmas plunge, though, although as ever it must be pointed out that the selections so far are further into the black when calculated on the Guaranteed Best Price than that old-fashioned friend of the bookmaker, the SP.
Tomorrow I must include Chelsea to win 2-0 post-Mourinho with ideal opponents to do it against in Sunderland. The players can do no more than show him that they could do it all along but just were no longer prepared to do it for him after his misjudged dealings with the good doctor.
Blue Fashion looks the likeliest option at Ascot on a fine programme where I'll be keeping it to sporting low stakes but with chances to win about 5 grand if I happen to go through the card with the likes of Thistlecrack in the Long Walk Hurdle, Fingal Bay in the chase and a bit of an outsider in the Ladbroke Hurdle.
But while the party animals are all out bingeing on this, the busiest night of the year for hospitals and ambulances, I'm feasting on the prospects of the racing in which almost every horse I can think of has their mid-season target race before deciding where they go later, be it Cheltenham, Aintree, Punchestown or maybe just Fontwell.
The modest yankee I've just put together will benefit enormously if Sausalito Sunrise can land the Welsh National. Less ambitiously, and in a treble without him, are Don Cossack in the King George on Boxing Day who has looked as if he's a horse going places and this is the first really big prize to go and collect however many others have good claims. Nichols Canyon in the Ryanair Hurdle on the 29th has Arctic Fire to deal with but should show that his defeat of Faugheen wasn't so much of a turn up. But Don Poli in the Lexus Chase looks the complete business on the 28th and, with so few of the Saturday Naps having run on Saturdays, is not the Boxing Day Nap but the Christmas one and is confidenmtly expected to bring this little series to a successful conclusion. There he is, look, pictured. He's won already.

We might have to think of a new name for this little column next year.

In the meantime, it's 5/4 Happy Christmas, 13/8 Happy New Year, 7/2 Seasons Greetings and don't forget to tune in for the Cheltenham Preview in March.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Saturday Nap

11/10 seemed like scant reward for relentlessly pursuing the Hilly Way chase with Felix Yonger in it but eventually, the race went ahead and that nap was landed.
It would have been the nap, at 5/2, two weeks ago but Cork was flooded. The meeting was rescheduled for last Sunday, when I took 2/1 ante post, but the track was still unraceable. So the meeting was moved to Navan on Monday, where he was chalked up at 6/4 so I took that. And the SP was 11/10. Don't talk to me about the law of diminishing returns.
I am feeling a little bit smartarse about the Houdini act I've performed over the last couple of weeks, refusing to put more money into my account but plotting my way out of the downward slide rather than join the ranks of destitute losers who insist on ploughing in more good money after bad. It is for good reason that the specialist racing channels used to have so many loan companies advertising on them, to their niche market.
The other side of that story is, of course, how my litany of recent winners would have been worth much more had I weighed in on them but, what's the point, it's not really about the money. 2015 will have shown a respectable profit and there will be something to start next year with. It could have been worse.
There's an end-of-term atmosphere now because this might be the last post, as it were, for this year.
Yanworth has been backed as if defeat is out of the question for Friday's Supreme Trial but I can't quite see it being any value with Altior in opposition and the 6/1 Penglai Pavilion could conceivably look like a seasonal gift if his last run is put behind him and he lives up to the hype that preceded it, some of which was provided by me.
I similarly don't want to nominate Saphir du Rheu for the Long Walk Hurdle with Thistlecrack still on the upgrade and Reve de Sivola always dangerous on heavy ground.
The Saturday Nap has been a moveable feast this year, not running on Saturday very often. It has run on Fridays, Sundays, Mondays. And now it runs on Thursday, the main problem being that I've stumbled across a winner for a few days in a row by now and so I'm going to back a loser soon. But Jessbers Dream in the first at Exeter tomorrow has been backed to 4/5 and looks very solid, without being bombproof, and so is a confident selection to sweep us into the black and ready for Boxing Day.
I was going to tip Don Cossack, here and now, for the King George, which is the right place to end on a winning note and the price is contracting all the time, but you have to worry about Cue Card; I'd love to see Silviniaco Conti do it one more time; there are plenty of other opportunities over Christmas, one of which might not be the offer of taking 4/1 about The New One to beat Faugheen. 
And so this won't be the last Saturday Nap of this year's adventure. It will be a cliff-hanging ending worthy of that great English novelist, Dick Francis.

Monday, 14 December 2015

The Shakespeare Circle

The Shakespeare Circle. An Alternative Biography, ed. Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells (Cambridge University Press)

It has been remarked that there is a 'Shakespeare-shaped hole' at the centre of his biography. The man who acted in the plays he wrote most of, was a shareholder in the theatres they were performed in and can be traced through a number of surviving legal documents is elusive and biographers tend to fill in the gap he leaves with suppositions, imaginings and the deductions from their various pieces of detective work. This new volume of essays has scholars working outwards from that hole, providing essays on family, friends and theatrical colleagues, in an attempt to shed some light back in.
In her Afterword, Margaret Drabble notes that, after so much has been written on the subject,
Surely...there can be nothing left to discover.
And yet, there can be new ways of looking at what there is, when minds of sufficient ingenuity are brought to the subject.
Shakespeare's will is a crucial document in understanding much about his life and relationships with others but is notoriously problematic when trying to deduce any such solid detail from it. The single line in which he leaves his second best bed and the furniture 'unto his wyf' has been interpreted at as much length as some of the plays along with the fact that it is inserted, apparently, as an afterthought. But sometimes it is possible to short-circuit generations-worth of debate by suggesting, as Katherine Scheil does, that the insertion might be nothing to do with Shakespeare but merely an omission by the copyist who added it in later.
As has happened before, it's all the lowly scribe's fault and,
Francis Collins, Shakespeare's clerk, was known for producing imperfect and uncorrected wills. 

and also, thus, causing much more confusion among biographers over the following centuries than the will as it stands was already going to give rise to. There is often a simple explanation when everything seems complicated and while much of this book seems to open up wider possibilities than some of the generally accepted ideas, it does also sometimes offer the chance to close down labyrynthine debates by simplifying them with revelatory common sense.
Graham Holderness, in his essay on Hamnet Shakespeare, mentions (no more than in passing) the possibility that the boy was,
proof positive of his mother's infidelity.
and then he moves on, still not noticing the further possibility- brought up whenever the chance arises on this website- that he could have been named after Hamnet Sadler, the family friend, as a reminder to all that Shakespeare knew who the real father was. Although it is noted more than once in the book how many children were named William, possibly after Shakespeare, it takes Hamnet and Judith Sadler until their ninth child to do so.
One would have been glad of an essay on Hamnet Sadler, which is an odd omission from this otherwise comprehensive volume in which the mining of contemporary records in Stratford is impressive. We know he was taken to court for having a muckheap outside his house; we know he wasn't at first included in Shakespeare's will but appears to have been added in, perhaps after a late change of heart and some, like me, are admirers of my friend's insightful theory that he was the father of Hamnet and Judith Shakespeare. It's a pity we couldn't have contributed a chapter on Sadler but in such an 'alternative biography' it is a shame to see the old idea that Shakespeare fathered a daughter and then twins still trotted out as unchallenged fact when Don Paterson's book on the sonnets gives his opinion of whether Shakespeare was gay or not as almost not worthy of an answer, 'of course he was'. So it wouldn't be too surprising if, having accidentally fathered a child in an early experiment in heterosexuality, he only dabbled in such conventional congress with a dark lady and other minor skirmishes but really was unlikely to be a prolific producer of progeny like so many of his contemporaries.
Germaine Greer, having made such a convincing case for Anne as a self-sufficient woman in Shakespeare's Wife, here presents a further typically Greerian defence of the much-disregarded daughter, Judith, in which the surviving twin is badly treated by her putative father in the conditions of his will on account of her marriage to Thomas Quiney, the vintner of some disrepute. In her customary and entertaining style, Prof. Greer really wants to stay with the 'alternative biography' theme and does so by finding the best where she can in womanhood and assuming that men are, for the most part, feckless but, as a stalwart contrarian, has to resort to suggesting that the unreliable Quiney, 'might have been fun'. She makes less of the fact that in Holy Trinity Church, alongside the graves of William; Anne; the acknowledged daughter, Susanna; her husband, John Hall, and Thomas Nash, the grandson-in-law, there was no room left for Judith, who is lost in the graveyard somewhere. So perhaps she was just unlucky that she lived until 1662.
There is a tendency to take sides in such issues and it does us no favours. While it is traditional to admire Shakespeare, this side of bardolatry, it would be problematic to assume his better treatment of Susanna in the will was entirely due to his better judgement. She sued against allegations of adultery and may or may not have been quite the idealized daughter she is sometimes thought to have been. But, then again, she might have been recognized by Shakespeare as his only genuine offspring which, given his apparent interest in coats of arms and his dynastic legacy, might be why his grandson-in-law is buried very close to him while Judith is forver lost to posterity.
David Fallow's essay on John, the father, makes a case for not believing in the long-held assumption that he fell upon hard times but that he was very successful as a dealer in wool and the reason we can't see that is because he was so successful in hiding his business affairs from the tax authorities that it is hidden from us as well. It is less romantic to think of William first going to London on business rather than with a group of actors, or in pursuit of such a career but it does fit, for opposites reasons, as an explanation why Shakespeare didn't go to University. Not because he had to stay in Stratford to help out a struggling family business but because he went to London as part of a thriving business. And we must not forget that there's plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that, as well as being anecdotally the sweetest and wittiest of company, he was businesslike whenever questions of cash were involved.  In either version, he gets himself to London at a tender age and I'm surprised how much this book as a whole assumes regular visits back to Stratford when all his work from the late 1580's to after 1612 went on in London. The Alternative Biography still lingers on family ties when the 'artistic temperament' often 'flies by those nets' (Joyce, not Shakespeare) but, yes, Stratford was always home and where he would retire to once he was tired, his revels were ended and, it has to be said, his writing was out of fashion.
He is spotted in London before the commonly accepted first mention of him as the 'upstart crow' in Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, in references that have made him worthy of mention before1592, and we are indebted to Andy Keeson for telling us that. You need to have been around for a while and made something of a reputation before your peers start to notice you and so I'm delighted to see Shakespeare's arrival in London made as early as possible because not being in Stratford when the twins were conceived, in 1584, would be a very good way for him to know that he wasn't their father.
There is one remaining big question about why Shakespeare's masterpiece (and I know many now say that is Lear, but it isn't, it's Hamlet) is so closely named after the so-called son. Emma Smith steps in to explain that they are two different names, Hamnet and Hamlet. That is helpful in dividing out a three-sided convergence between the family friend, the naming of the boy and the subject of the magnum opus, when two are plenty. I'd be glad of it if it weren't even more apparent that spelling was an approximate art in those days, especially in Shaxpere's day, and that Hamnet and Hamlet weren't closer to each other than several of the variants of Shakespeare's own name. It would be better to point out that the play was based on the old story of Amleth and that the family friend was called Hamnet. And that's all there is to it.
But Shakespeare's circle were no more angelic than any other assembled gathering of humanity and there's no reason to assume he himself was any better than the rest of us either, except when first being satirized for his 'sweet', Ovidian writing and then proceeding to dominate English Literature like none before him or that ever will be able to again. Duncan Salkeld tells us all there is to know about George Wilkins, brothel keeper, hideous man, co-author of Pericles but associate of William Shakespeare who, whoever he was, certainly made a long-lasting name for himself and, apparently, a tidy pile of cash while he was doing it.
This book wouldn't be the place to start if you want an outline of his life. You can go to Anthony Burgess for a shameless summary of all the myths and legends, or somebody like Peter Ackroyd for a sensible account. But, in the same way that much of the science we were taught at school (Jupiter used to have 16 satellites but now has 64 or more) has been updated, the way we understand the life of Shakespeare, if we care to, is forever being modified. This book is a useful step in that direction but we know it's not over yet.
I'm not flabbergasted to read that Shakespeare might not actually have died on his birthday but I am disconcerted that despite my attempts on this website, and my friend's excellent play that extrapolates his original idea, and was circulated to a few theatres and academics, that nobody else can see that Shakespeare fathered one daughter and she, as far as he knew, was his entire offspring.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Saturday Nap

With half a dozen winners last weekend, I could feel a bit hard done by that I'm not sipping champagne while deliberating how to conquer new heights this weekend. But when one has been on the slide there is some reluctance to send good money after bad and I was only playing with the remnants of what was left in my account so that I can end the year on a respectable profit. And you can't win much by defending.
And then Bristol de Mai had loomed up, allowing me to start totting up the payout from the winning nap, only to find that the Moore's 14/1 had saved a bit and went clear again, making it look as if the stable know something about training horses for Sandown that none of the others do.
I know there's no such thing as 'fair' but life can seem more difficult than it needs to be sometimes. It didn't seem so in those lazy, crazy days of summer, though, cashing in on low grade, off-peak jump racing, not realizing that I should be steaming in then, not waiting for the proper (i.e. 'competitive') races in the Autumn.
Sausalito Sunrise is a horse I've always liked since it follwed Kings Palace home in novice chases more than once. Already a winner of a good, grown up chase, he's 7/2 fav at Cheltenham tomorrow but can't win every time he runs.
Peace & Co, who landed the Cheltenham nap for us in March, reappears in the International Hurdle on Saturday, and seems to be all the rage at 4/5 but with Old Guard already an impressive winner this season in opposition, he isn't nap material.
So, Felix Yonger, who was to be the nap last week until Cork was abandoned, is taken to show that the weather was against us last week and I've somewhat rashly taken the 2/1 on ante post terms. I was on at 5/2 last week but it looks slightly different now after Clarcam ran elsewhere and got beat. It runs on Sunday.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Best Poem and Best Collection 2015

It has taken more thinking about than usual to arrive at a decision about which was the Best New Poetry Collection I read in 2015. The shortlist of four titles posted here a few weeks ago would all have been very worthy winners, which is what being on the shortlist means, but it has taken from then until now to decide because it was by no means obvious.
Most of the subsidiary honours I augment these two main titles with were awarded at the shortlist stage but since then Steven Isserlis's performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto has been supplemented to the  Best Event category. It has to be admitted that I've not been to very many spectacular events this year compared to others but it is unlucky for Index Cantorum, the choir whose lunchtime concert in Winchester Cathedral in September, with its Tavener, Monteverdi and MacMillan, that Portsmouth ought to be bloody grateful that Isserlis comes here and it's almost beginning to look as if some of us pick our Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra concerts on the basis of whether or not Shostakovich is on the programme. But, what can you do, it was quite clearly the best thing I've been to all year, although very difficult to compare in any meaningful way with my nephew's first bike race.
There were the usual small handful of tremendous poems that will remain in the memory as long as the memory remains. Kate Bingham's Open was shortlisted previously when I first saw it and is now included in her book, Infragreen, but it can't really be shortlisted as 'new' twice; in any other year, I'm sure Caitriona O'Reilly's The Airship Era, or perhaps also The Servant Question, from Geis, would have been the best poem I'd seen but Sean O'Brien's The Beautiful Librarians was an instant classic, bringing with it its own 'realms of gold' to inhabit. It was compared in Poetry Review to Larkin's At Grass for its nostalgia, and perhaps there is the vaguest similarity. But there is no danger of Tom Paulin mistaking Sean's tribute for a lament for the loss of empire because, of course, it is subtly political not so much in its adoration of the librarians and the books but in its lament for the ongoing closure of the libraries. It isn't just the best poem of this year but one of the greatest poems of the century so far.
But it wasn't quite so easy to decide which collection to say was best and I had to first wonder how to decide before deciding, although no strict set of rules can be made to work. Eventually, one has to just know.
The first two or three poems in Don Paterson's 40 Sonnets had me thinking that, if this continues, this is going to be the best book of poems I've ever read. But the facility, the cleverness, the understandable impulse to stretch the limits of the 'sonnet' perhaps counted against it in the end.
Kate Bingham is a wonderful poet and will always be one to seek out for her beautifully made pieces. Infragreen is her best book yet and only, I think, her third, so she's likely to be considered here for as long as such considerations take place.
And it is much to my chagrin that Prof. O'Brien, 'majesty', had not been awarded a Best in the now seven years I've been undertaking these deliberations until the paragraph above because he is a long-standing poetry hero of mine, in his best poems.
But the book that does the most with 'poetry', has the most range and has the deepest, most resonant effect  -even if it explores further into the lexicon than some might think necessary and possibly fancies itself more than is good for it- is Caitriona O'Reilly's Geis, mainly for the two poems mentioned above but, then again, for its ambition because although ambition can often be a bad thing, one can't achieve much without it.
It wasn't easy to arrive at the decision but once I had, I was happy with it.
The cheques are not in the post to the winners because the prize is only what recognition I can add to the poets, which isn't much more than they already have, but it comes with my thanks for having done what they did. Poetry is a dubious enterprise nowadays and possibly always was but it is the likes of these admirable highlights that make it all worthwhile.

Friday, 4 December 2015

Rothko Chapel

Rothko Chapel, Kim Kashkashian, Sarah Rothenburg et al (ECM)

This record is unlikely to make the Sunday morning playlist to accompany the all-too-brief long lie down with the paper, the racing prospects and possibly the crossword. While I would never draw the line at serious 'art music' for such an occasion, the most often chosen records for that include Wagenseil's Quartets for low strings and the Krumpholtz Concerto for Harp, no.6 if you must know, which would be the theme tune for the Sunday morning programme of gorgeous, uplifting music if ever this website extended into a radio station.
Mark Rothko's paintings omitted the human figure at an early stage of his career and anything identifiably figurative soon after. His canvasses of merging blocks of colour then drained themselves of bright colours to dark until only black remained and then he committed suicide. In a varied shortlist of favourite painters, he is one of mine alongside Vermeer, the Brueghels, de Hooch and, of course, Maggi Hambling. The title piece of this new record is Morton Feldman's music to go with the last, black masterpieces collected in the Rothko Chapel in Houston. It's unlikely you'll be able to name very many other pieces scored for viola, celeste, percussion, soprano, mezzo-soprano and choir.
It's an impossible job, really, to find music to accompany paintings that are best left to shimmer on the edge of eternity in silence but Kim Kashkashian's and Feldman's solemn viola and its small entourage make a brave effort while always somehow doomed to fail by even allowing the possibility of any programmatic interpretation. If music has the advantage of poetry by not having to tie itself to the meanings inevitably let in by words then painting is free of the ideas that come with music. The pieces for voices by John Cage that follow perhaps get closer to Rothko, their sustained single notes overlapping into meditations that float beyond meaning, gently and then more urgently, but offering no more than that. They suggest timelessness without being able to achieve it in their five or six minute duration but they weren't specifically written to go with the art. Such music was possibly of its time and comes with the feel of the dead end of modernism but a cul-de-sac can be worth exploring and the ear for EAR (Antiphonies), thus titled and not just typing that has been left unchecked by me, echo medieval plainchant to show that not all the avant garde threw away all reference to their inheritance.
The highlights of the disc, though, must be the Erk Satie Gnossiennes, more so than the dramatic but  deliberately simplistic Ogives. Gnossienne no.1 is made to linger and hang even more than I remember it doing. It wanders in its misty mystery, emerging with its simple but haunting refrain. Sarah Rothenburg brings out all that was already implied in it and the disc is worth having for this alone, bringing back memories of a much-loved LP I played over and again as a teenager. I hope it is exactly that recording, by John McCabe, that I have gone to the lengths of finding on CD only to save me the trouble of finding out if, firstly, the LP is still in good enough condition to play and, secondly, my never-used turntable can play it. I had unwontedly left Erik Sate aside for much too long.
But, there's more, the set finishes with John Cage's In a Landscape. Whereas the voice pieces here are from the 1980's, and thus 'late', this is from 1948 when he was 36, and apparently a different composer altogether. It is like finding Picasso's blue or rose periods when all you knew was the Demoiselles d'Avignon or some other fractured vision of humanity. It is luminous, repetitively so, but lands very much on the lucky side of whether such compositions sound trite and self-generating or somehow entirely convincing. It can be a close run thing. It's not unlike Philip Glass's wonderful Solo Piano album. I wonder if that still sounds as good as it used to.
Oh, no, here we go again.

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

Sometimes the George Eliot just has to stop. I thought it was quite rude of Giles Coren, the slightly less sexy of the two current Corens, to suggest in  The Times last weekend that reading George Eliot wasn't enjoyable. This ribald, deliberately outrageous suggestion is, of course, just a journalist's nuisance remark lobbed in to make him seem interersting, which he sometimes is while never able to aspire to his sister's much classier demeanour.
But it came at a difficult time when, quite honestly, Romola was burying me in brilliant scholarship about Savaranola and Florence and everything but I was doing that thing I like least, among others, which is reading a book for the sake if it. Which is a pity because otherwise Geoge Eliot has been a joy to read but, only half a novel from reading all of them, she has to be put away for a little while because The Shakespeare Circle, ed. Edmondson and Wells, arrives, and needs looking at seriously, immediately and importantly.
Most people who have heard of Shakespeare, which is most people, think that the plays are the thing. I don't. I'm interested in every last, ludicrous detail about his life, which is mostly unretrievable but remains disproportinately crucial to me compared to what he was good at, which was writing plays, and perhaps poems, too.
So, maybe, one day, I'll pick up Romola where I left off. But not in any hurry.
Those on the edge of their seats to know what will be given that priceless honour of my Best Poem and Best Collection of Poetry for this year will only have another week to wait. It has been a difficult process but I'm confident of arriving at the right decision soon.
Whereas there is another award I'd like to get sorted out as soon as possible because I put money on it and I'd like my money back sooner rather than later.
It must be 40 years and more since I ever cared about the NME awards and sent in a vote for Jan Akkerman as Best Guitarist but I noticed The Libertines at 8/11 on Paddy Power to be this year's Best Band. I've since seen Gunga Din at 6/5 for Best Single and the band at 4/7 for Best Live Band. I have no idea what the opposition are like- Wolf Alice, The Maccabees, Foals- but I'm happy to back The Libertines blind, against anything, because they must be the best. And I only hope the voting readers think so, too.
The Libertines were actually The Saturday Nap this week until I realized the result wouldn't be just yet and, really, the Saturday Nap is supposed to be about horse racing.
But anybody who thought the Labour Party was finished might want to think again. I don't know what price Hilary Benn was for next Labour leader earlier this week but I'd make him favourite now, in a lack lustre field. It's never quite as lack lustre as a Conservative leadership contest but their lustre is generated by money, blase arrogance and an odd carry over from the Divine Right of Kings. there is no way of persuading them they haven't got it. In the same way that campus marxists could brilliantly explain all the problems but never provided a solution to them.
It must be time to listen to Gunga Din.

The Saturday Nap

Aintree, Sandown, Wetherby and Chepstow.  It is like being in a sweet shop, aged 6, hardly knowing where to look to spend your pocket money. And yet we know that Friday night is about choosing that one, that one, that one and that one, completely convinced that each of them is descended from Pegasus only to arrive at Saturday tea-time with a winner or two, maybe, but a litany of unexplained mishaps to reduce the enormous potential profit to an attitude of 'oh, well, never mind'
I had backed Felix Yonger to win on Sunday ante-post, him being a horse that never lets me down but I owed him an apology for not realizing he was running when he won a few weeks ago. But already Cork on Sunday is abandoned.
I have had a great week, statistically, so far on the recovery trail from some major recent setbacks with 7 winners out of a dozen but it takes a long time to repair the damage of a couple of major misdirected plunges when one is doing so with small change, defensively unwilling to plunge headlong into further disaster and jeopardize what will be a respectable plus for 2015. And it must be almost time for the Nap to get itself back into the black, too.
We will have to have a bit of a mug punt on races like the Becher Chase but that's not the sort of race to stab at with real money. It's just nice to go to bed on Friday night thinking, if one can still think, of a couple of quid turning into a couple of hundred because it can and sometimes it does.
But, sensibly, I still wouldn't dare guess at the winner of the Tingle Creek even if Un De Sceuax and Simonsig aren't in it. Not unless they could bring back Tingle Creek himself at the top of his form.
It's a shame the 3 mile chase at Aintree has been reduced to four runners with Don Poli thus odds on. He will know he's in England by the lack of numbers surrounding him. You never need to know if a race is in Ireland or England if you switch on At the Races. If there are loads of them, it's in Ireland; if there are four or five runners, it's almost certainly in England.
So my main hope is that Paddy unsuspends my Felix Yonger bet and lets me take him on elsewhere. I like Saint Are in the Becher (Aintree 1.40) but would like to dare to believe in my old, and perhaps ongoing, Grand National hope, Unioniste. There's no nap there, though.
O O Seven (Sandown 2.15) is one you might put as the one to keep a yankee together but 4/5 is not what I'm looking for.
The Skelton stable have been doing very well in recent days, there's not much I like more than a stable in form, and so Virgilio in the 2.45 at Aintree is going to go in somewhere in tomorrow's guesswork.
But Bristol de Mai (Sandown 1.55) was always a chaser to look forward to and now the time that we were looking forward to has arrived. That's the nap and, if I wasn't recovering from recent traumas then I'd be having much more on it than I actually will be. If and when it has won, it won't have been guesswork, it will have been very unfortunate that I didn't feel like lumping on.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Kate Miller - The Observances

Kate Miller, The Observances (Carcanet)

In The Guardian recently, John Dugdale described this book as 'the oddball entry' on the Costa Prize poetry shortlist.
In a time in which poets are prized for their difference, individuality and 'personal voice', where pluralism has been realized and what poets have in common is that they have nothing in common, it's hard to say whether being identified as 'oddball' is a good thing or not and furthermore whether, as such, it places the book in question among the orthodox or the unorthodox. There are still plenty of self-styled renegades who regard themselves as 'against the grain', 'avant garde' and different but what are they different from if the centre has not been able to hold and there is no established hegemony to be contrary to. Those poets who aspire to maverick experimental status are more likely to be following a tradition now over a hundred years old with lots of arcane standards of its own that have been 'old hat' for longer than they realize. Along with so many other assumptions that were challenged years ago, perhaps the distinction between mainstream and avant garde has, inconveniently for them, also been erased and put them out of a job.
There's nothing remotely oddball about Kate Miller's poetry and I doubt if there was intended to be. She is identifiably herself, one of many, many different poets writing today and perfectly orthodox, or unorthodox, because it is doubtful if either term means anything at all.
It took me a little while to find my way into the poems. They are not inconsequential but I found them inconclusive. Eventually, I found the poems in the fourth and final section, Enter the Sea, a number of which concern Portsmouth and I cottoned on to the lines in House at Sea,
                                I watch the dark
green creature claw the bottom step 
and mount. Eyes and 'o's of diesel,
winking, double on the swell.
                          and saw the water. The poetry is about seeing but one mustn't take poetry at face value and I began to look at the poems to see in what ways they were also 'observances' of ceremony, rites or rituals. And there we are, on page 33, a poem sub-titled 'a ritual observed'. So, similarly, without wanting to move into a masterclass on close reading or an undergraduate workshop, perhaps Enter the Sea is both a command and a stage direction and the title, House at Sea, can be read from opposite angles. But poetry is best left to have its way without too much such explication.
In From the Gods at Oz Adana, Pas de deux, 

Insects hush
as bats begin to net the sky.

The poem has a quiet reverence and is one of many where one becomes aware of its music. For poetry ostensibly about visual effects and abstract ideas, it is written with subtle rhythm and the pleasure of the sound the words make together is as important as the pictures they make.
In The Sea is Midwife to the Shore,
       the sea smoothes,
fondles chubby stones, croons over each
                               peculiar stone and treats it
as its own
    newborn, immense and gleaming,
                             nursed on the stretched belly of the beach. 

and then, in Nelson's Last Walk, both the students on and lecturers who taught the Stylistics and Criticism course at Lancaster circa 1979 would have been thrilled to count the 's' sounds in the last three lines to forensically make their case for assonance although, all these decades later, I'm now allowed to enjoy it for what it is and that it just happened like that.
The Observances repays some re-reading. It's not an instant hit but is poetry with subtle top notes and stays long in the appreciating. It has probably been worked on and crafted over time, it is deeply considered rather than spontaneous and thus requires some attention but time thus spent is likely to be re-paid. It certainly warrants more than being labelled 'oddball', which, even if some might take that as a compliment, doesn't sound like one to me. The Costa Poetry list also includes Don Paterson, Neil Rollinson and Andrew McMillan and I prefer my own list (elsewhere here recently) but it's possible that the virtues of Kate Miller's poems could persuade their judges to put it ahead of Paterson's entirely different knowing cool.


Friday, 27 November 2015

Oh, Babe, What Would You Say

There is a shop nearby the railway station not far from where I work that sells the TLS surprisingly among its otherwise barren fare. I saw Socialist Worker in there, too, today - one doesn't see that everywhere these days. I bought the sole copy TLS in order to justify them selling it but if I take up the trial offer of 12 copies for 12 quid then that could take the last trace of highbrow culture off Cosham High Street when that place finally stops selling it or closes down from that crucial loss of custom. It would be cruel.
But in among all sorts of Books of the Year recommendations from intellectuals so esoteric that not even their own families might have heard of them is the Cambridge University Press advert including mention of The Shakespeare Circle ed. Edmondson and Wells, adding or imagining yet more Shakespeare biography from the lives of his contemporatries and associates. Out since October and I didn't know. That's why perhaps these days only the TLS will do. The Beano is good but it doesn't have quite the same coverage of the publishing industry. So, Bang. That's that on order and Christmas reading sorted to go alongside my writing of the introduction to the Portsmouth Poetry Society's meeting on Rosemary Tonks and, by then, perhaps also being in a position to see if I have anything passable to write about George Eliot. I really ought to spend some time with my long-suffering family during Christmas, too, rather than use the holiday as a retreat, only appearing for meals or when there are presents to open, like possibly the book of Larkin's photography and a set of Buster Keaton DVD's.
But, among the welter of Books of the Year, Paul Muldoon says of Shapiro's 1606,
It's a work of genius.
But surely it's overstating the case to say it has 'at least one major revelation per page'. In a book of 406 pages of text, can 406 revelations all be 'major'.
But, of course, Muldoon is a poet and I remember a seminar in my first year at University that seemed to be teaching us that poetry was all hyperbole. I sat there for the hour with the growing suspicion that there must be more to it than that. And, of course, since then I have found out that there is metaphor and alliteration as well.
I thought I'd be reviewing Morton Feldman's music for the Rothko Chapel tonight when I found a new arrival in the post. Always an exciting event., however often it happens. But it's Kate Miller's book The Observances, recently described as the more adventurous choice on the Costa Prize shortlist, so I thought I'll show 'em how front line and open I can be, I'll get one of them. But one can't review a poetry book while reading it for the first time, pouring Chardonnay down oneself on a Friday night, in the same way that one can (or I do) say what you knew you were going to say anyway about a new disc as you listen to it.
So, coming soon, reviews of music about Rothko and poetry by Kate Miller.
Meanwhile, calamity upon calamity as Paddy Power remorselessly retrieves all the money he's lent me over the year. A 2/1 winner out of three selections is stalemate between punter and bookie at level stakes but today unfortunately the winner was the one that augmented the treble and the two best bets today fell when beaten and came second respectively. The bookmaker only ever lends money to the mug punter and he knows that. The mug punter secretly knows he will lose in the end but lives for those days when his horse looms up outside the leader coming to the last fence, outjumps him and canters off with the winnings. Suddenly those crazy days of summer, picking winners for fun, for small stakes but sauntering to an all-time high profit-level, seem a very long time ago.
The best recommendations for the favourites in tomorrow's Hennessy Gold Cup and Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Saphir du Rheu and Wicklow Brave, is that I don't fancy either of them at all. So there's a double for you that should pay 16/1. But, away from the crucible of high pressure tipstering that is the Saturday Nap, I might do the latest, last remaining few quid in my account on The Young Master in the Hennessy.
Paddy's website has introduced this crowing little reminder when one logs in that says, 'your account is running low, do you want to top it up' which is not as helpful as I'm sure they want to pretend it is.
No, Paddy, I don't. I'll decide when I want to do that. Did I accompany all the bets I placed in August with a message that said, 'ha, ha, you daft bookie, you are paying for my drinks these days. No, I didn't. So let's have a bit of decorum while you take me back to the cleaners.

Sport. I ask you. What was ever the point of it.   

The Fishwife's Tale

For me, the possibility of a new poem is more often suggested by a word, or words, rather than experience or the world. Words are generated by other words, books by other books, poems by other poems. It is for others to translate the world into literature. Perhaps for me the world is words, which is probably not how it should be. However, seeing the word 'fishwife' this week immediately set off that rare alarm call that there was the next poem.
I'm not convinced about the last line. 'Herbs' are a vestige of the scruffy notes I made as I tried to find a way in, where they were going to be a rhyme for 'verbs' once the parallel between language and fish recipes had been arrived at. It can stay like that and go into the 'uncollected poems' folder for later amendment if necessary. It takes a while to look back on these things and decide if it's really worthwhile.

The Fishwife’s Tale

Beyond the Gentility Principle

I say it was fresh yesterday and sell
them for what I can get, their shine tarnished,
their bored eyes staring back at me without
reproach but their perfume becomes my own.
The Market Square goes home with me, hanging
about me like a curse, while my turbot
and halibut that servants had been sent to fetch
are laid on china plates for those whose taste
in poetry’s not likely to mean mine.
I know what they say about me in posh
houses with chandeliers and dogs who know
their pedigree. My language doesn’t show
up in their delicate capriccios
being, for the love of God, in rude health
and vigorous. My nouns are (like life) short
and brutish and my verbs intransitive
and as unpalatable as my fish
would be without the lemon or parsley
or carefully prepared sauce made from herbs.

Thursday, 26 November 2015


Loquebantur, Music from the Baldwin Partbooks, The Marian Consort, Rory McCleery, Rose Consort of Viols (Delphian)

I've probably bought fewer records this year than in most recent years so I was due some when this and a new Tallis Scholars disc were released a few weeks ago. But I thought how much of this music I already have and demurred. Then last week Radio 3's The Choir played a piece from this and, for the love of God, it was soon being ordered.
George Baldwin was a lay clerk at Windsor in 1575...and the so-called 'Baldwin Partbooks', held at Christ Church, Oxford, were his creation'.
So this is a similar collection to, but later than, the Eton Choirbook. 

The consort of viols punctuate the stellar vocal pieces with more terrestrial interludes but the highlights are in the singing, the sopranos Emma Walshe and Gwendolen Martin and countertenors Daniel Collins and Rory McCleary stretching effortlessly, or easily enough, into the acoustic of Merton College Chapel. After the Tallis Loquebantur variis linguis has uwrapped and explained itself in gathering celebration, its parts prefiguring the style of trad jazz by 400 years as each leads off from another, we can soon see how William Byrd learnt from the master in O salutaris hostia, with words by Thomas Aquinas that don't convince the C21st atheist of their copper-bottomed wisdom,
O sacrifice that brings salvation,
That opens the gate of heaven.

More earthbound in sentiment but persuasive in its soprano top line is Dum transisset Sabbatum by Christian Hollander (1510-1568/9) in which Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jmes and Salome bring spices to anoint Jesus.
I dare say the instrumental pieces are put in to break up the succession of pure vocal elaborations. I'd generally prefer a disc of voices and another disc of viol music but in this case, it is about a selection from the book and so here is John Taverner diverting into chamber music with Quaemadmodum, not the Taverner we get from the Tallis Scholars but thought to have been originally a setting of Psalm 42.
I suspect the William Mundy Adhaesit pavimento and John Sheppard Ave Maris Stella with which the Marian Consort finish are the most ambitious, grandest compositions saved for the end, the finale surely the outstandingly stately and monastic item on the programme. In between these comes Baldwin's own off-beat appearance in Coockow as I me walked  that Steeleye Span might like to discover one day. But we are left at our profoundest with Sheppard returning us strictly to a Vespers hymn and an appropriately devotional place to end.
As an habitual purchaser of records like this, I can't say that anything on it has recommended itself as a candidate for the ultimate shortlist of greatest things of the age and maybe the Eton Choirbook is ahead of Baldwin, which is not to say it's anything less than a fine disc but if you live in paradise then routine gloriousness happens all the time and one can begin to take it for granted.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Beast of Burden is not only my favourite Rolling Stones song but a staying novice chaser of considerable promise. Some of my money was unseated along with Paul Townend when he was otherwise all over the winner at Chepstow on his first outing over fences. I should be recouping those particular losses (out of the accumulating losses I've been compiling recently) tomorrow at Newbury in a classy Grade 2 Novice Chase. But I won't be. I'm distracted by the early money for the Skelton's Value at Risk (Newbury 2.10). Such distractions can be a bad thing when sticking to one's guns can sometimes be the answer in adversity. But I've thought and thought again and will stop there, without thinking any more.
I can't see Wicklow Brave being the right choice for the Fighting Fifth hurdle on Saturday with in-form Irving and the quite interesting Beltor in opposition. The Hennessy is not my sort of race since not backing Denman having tipped him all week at 5/1 a few years ago. And so it's a Thursday nap this week in the belief that the slide towards penury will be halted one day. I will finish the year in front but it may no longer be by a personal best margin, and it would be better to finish with a healthy amount in the account to take into 2016. Recent setbacks were paid for in advance by a marvellous low-key summer jumping season but now the fruits of those lazy, hazy days have been surrendered. So now would be a good time for the naps to start leading the way back with green shoots of economic recovery, fiscal well-being, spend to grow, prudence, entrepreneurial adventure, investing in the future and all the other buzzword phrases that the great Chancellors of the Exchequer of recent years have coined to justify their own guesswork and ill-informed gambles.
At least I back my own with my own money and not that entrusted to me by the nation.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Up the Creek

One ongoing series of photographs I never quite got round to taking was of Baffins Pond, Portsmouth, near where I used to live, seeing it and the birds that lived there through the year in different light and all weathers. The latest is Hilsea Creek, the stretch of water that gives Portsmouth a genuine reason for its island identity, the highlight of my new walk to and from work.
Pictures of the creek in daylight will be fine but the series of pictures would only have the contrast I intend for it if included some in twilight and darkness, the lights from the motorway reflected on the water as well as the difference between the tide coming in to fill it with choppy, windblown waves and the desolate strip of dirty, disconsolate stream it becomes at low tide revealing its collection of bollards and detritus on mud banks as unpicturesque as any on the coast of Britain. It is an immediately forgettable picture made interesting only by its commentary on what it's like to be nowhere in particular but caught in the mist, the dusk or with artificial light shining on it, it is capable of atmosphere.
Here is a picture from the internet. Unremarkable, isn't it. And thus, a good place for poetry, or something like it, to come from. Stephen Fry has been among those descrying the state of contemporary poetry perhaps for its inward-looking nature, the way in which it no longer aspires to the heroic or compare with memorable great poetry of the past. But I'm not so sure it doesn't, at its best. In whatever age one lived, thee must have been plenty of poetry written that wasn't very good, it's just that there is a lot of poetry now whereas much of the lots of poetry written in previous periods has, quite understandably, not been preserved.
Even admirers of Larkin seem able to accept that Larkin is a 'great, minor poet' and I think I've heard Anthony Thwaite say so. But I don't think I'd even agree with that in all its implications. We would look ridiculous now if we wrote like Byron and we make adjustments of our own when reading Romantic poetry. It might not have been entirely beneficial for poetry to have been annexed by academics and Creative Writing and made into the slightly too commodified industry it has become but that is not to say that adjusting from an art form of national interest and Tennysonian grandeur to something more recherche or simply less obvious is a bad thing.  It has retreated to the outskirts of our culture, being just words on a page and then read from that page, but that's not such a bad place to be. It will attract its share of cranks and careerists who will try it on for size and make a little name for themselves but only in the same proportion as any other part of the arts or sports community or business enterprise does.
Some poets are like Hilsea Creek and look unprepossessing at first but they can do much more than that given due attention.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Transtromer Translation

I don't believe in Poetry in Translation. Of the many and various definitions or aphorisms that attempt to say what poetry is, Robert Frost's that it is 'what gets lost in translation' is one of the more useful.
'Poetry in translation' is a contradiction in terms if poetry depends on the music of the words and is the product of sound and meaning coming together. The sound only exists in the original language and can only thus be appreciated by one fluent in it. As soon as it is translated, we are in receipt of something like a painting re-ordered into a topographical representation with its colours seen through tinted glass.
A translator can provide a literal version of what the words mean or a new poem in the other language but the new poem is the translator's poetry, not the poet's. They can faithfully reproduce the form or rhyme scheme at further risk of sacrificing a close rendering of the original, straining for rhymes (which is not as easy in English as in some languages) and having to use words that are further from the most appropriate than one might like. And they can try to recreate the feeling or atmosphere but again, languages tend to have their own idiosyncracies and when a joke, wordplay or ambiguity occurs in a translation, one can't be sure it worked like that in the poem itself.
I have compared Baudelaire to translations of Baudelaire and know that's not quite what it said; I have taken Sean O'Brien's word for Dante's; I have read versions of Ovid, Horace, Juvenal, Catullus and all but personally prefer working on my own versions of Ovid, conflating various interpretations. It's never satisfactory and I never believe one hears the poem as a native user of its original language would. All of that is a great pity because it restricts poetry, even more than the novel, to a monoglot, or not very many-glot, audience when music and painting are far more able to move freely across such boundaries. Mozart and Shostakovich sound the same to British listeners as they do to Austrians and Russians, one assumes, and Bach's cantatas succeed in making German sound beautiful. Vermeer, Rothko and Francis Bacon look the same in Dutch, American, Russian and English and will readily be described by each with their own appropriate words. But I can't believe that a translation of Larkin into French, Akhmatova into English or Horace into Japanese gives a proper sense of the poem. And I won't even mention the English haiku industry.
But we mustn't give up. Poetry doesn't stop when you reach Dover or Heathrow. We would be the poorer if we didn't at least try to understand what poetry from other languages is doing and we would be more than usually moribund if we assumed that only English poetry was worth reading. I know that Eng Lit courses in our most respected universities used to prefer to study old sagas from Iceland, Old English and Chaucer in preference to C20th English poets- maybe that has changed- but Eng Lit owes a debt to Italian as well as other cultures from which it borrowed at significant times.
So, when I heard, only in passing, from a respected source that they had been reading Tomas Transtromer and were impressed, I took the hint. It's difficult to know what to read when the names one thinks one ought to like turn out to be disappontments (William Empson) and yet some you might never try could be just your thing. There is this list of European poets - including Mandelstam, Holderlin, Celan, Herbert, Montale - that might be read dutifully but I don't read dutifully these days. Even if Wislawa Symborska made a big impression in the 1990's, I didn't go as far as learning Polish to get a better grasp.
I hadn't realized that Transtromer had died earlier this year, having suffered a stroke in 1990 that left him unable to communicate in speech for all that time since. The Nobel Prize is a good tipster (Heaney, Symborska, but not Hughes) and I found soundbite assessments of his poetry describing it as 'pure, cold', economical and 'unobtrusively unforgettable'.
Robin Fulton's translations in the Bloodaxe New Collected Poems provide plenty of evidence those being the right things to say. These are versions in which Fulton's words replace Transtromer's Swedish and I will never know quite how accurately they say what the Swedish words say or if they attempt to imitate any linguistic effects but time and again one is left with a sense of the whole poem, an idea of the Transtromer original which is something transcending its ordinary circumstances, as in, for example,

From July 1990

It was a funeral
and I felt like the dead man
was reading my thoughts
better than I could.

The organ was silent, the birds sang.
The grave out in the sunshine.
My friend's voice belonged
on the far side of the minutes.

I  drove home seen-through
by the glitter of the summer day
by rain and quietness
seen-through by the moon.

But if it's that good in translation, how good is it in Swedish.

The Bloodaxe book ends with some autobiographical essays about school and childhood. They are compelling, suggesting that his early life was at times as traumatic as his last years but the character, calm and so perceptive and trustworthy, that forms his poems overcome all of that. And I always think that a poet that writes less rather than more is one that writes when something matters rather than for writing's sake and Transtromer's New Collected is not a big Collected by anybody's standards.
And so I'm glad of poetry in translation when it can provide such a valuable account of a poet who was otherwise not accessible to all those whose Swedish is not as good as it could be. Those autobiographical pieces are from a memoir called Memories Look at Me, which is sadly only 64 pages long but, on the other hand, not expensive to acquire. It is only one click away and so should be here next week.


Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Sprinter Sacre made it all worthwhile last week, looking like his old self in demolishing a good quality field at Cheltenham. There was no money involved for me but it was one of those rare moments in professional sport when the occasion was for its own sake and not just the latest episode in the pursuit of cash. He was, I reckon, the best horse I've ever seen before his setback two years ago and he might not be expected to achieve quite the same level on the comeback trail but it was good to see at least that much.
Meanwhile, back in the world of filthy lucre, I'm on the slide and need to arrest the rate of decay of this year's profit. There might not be any better chance on Saturday than that of Francis of Assisi (Haydock 1.55) tomorrow and so that's the recommendation. He was brought home in his own time once beaten in the good hurdle at Wincanton last week having been thought worth a go in such company so the return to a novice race could see him back winning again. 

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

Since the announcement of my shortlists for the Best Poetry of 2015 last week I have been taking my responsibilities very seriously. The Isserlis/BSO Shostakovich was immediately supplemented to the Best Event shortlist and wouldn't have been were it not a very serious contender. The Best Poem category has been pretty much a forgone conclusion for months. But the Best Collection decision is a very difficult one to make.
It is my usual practice to read the shortlist again to make sure of my choice so on Sunday night I collected the four titles together to keep them by the bedside for ongoing consideration. The Don Paterson and Kate Bingham books were there already so I just had to add the O'Brien and O'Reilly. They were not by the bedside so must be downstairs. Not by the computer, not on the table, not in the executive attache case I take to poetry redings or meetings. So, they must have been upstairs. Move the bed, no, they haven't fallen down the side, no, not here, not in the drawers. Back downstairs, emptying the bookcase which is double stacked with poetry books, from time to time realigning the Derek Mahons together, putting Lachlan MacKinnon back next to Wendy Cope, re-uniting the Muldoons. Systematically taking out handfuls of books and replacing them in a different order each time. No sign of the two fugitive volumes. Upstairs again, then downstairs again. Sunday night is gradually deepening towards late but by now I know I won't sleep if I don't find them. I sit down and think.
Oh, yes, that spare shelf on the big bookcase between the Larkin shelf and the Gunn shelf. I 'tidied up' by moving a pile of miscellaneous books and put them on there. And there they were.
But, having found them hasn't yet helped me towards a decision. Usually, a few bits of re-reading arrives one at a decision without the need of defining what 'Best' means but this year it's so close that I am having to decide how to decide.
They all have some excellent poems in them but merely counting or measuring their greatness isn't satisfactory. How much is it to the detriment of a book if it contains some less good pieces. Does one rate technical excellence above personal preference. Is there one aspect of any book that really should put it ahead of the others. No approach provides an obvious answer and the decision could conceivably still go any one of four ways. This year, Muldoon and Lumsden didn't make the shortlist but that hasn't made it much easier. It is the closest heat of this underwhelmingly disregarded award since its inauguration, and there have been some very competitive years. I imagine the offices of the LRB are lively with debate on the issue. However, it will be decided by finally closing the books and meditating for a while on which book is the most memorable for the overall impression it leaves of its attitude, world view but, mainly, of course, its words.
The winners will be announced in mid December.
Meanwhile, Romola has been embarked upon in this, my year of George Eliot, which will mean I'll have read all bar the already-read Middlemarch this year. It wasn't a promising start with its 'proem' and first chapter but then began telling its story and we were back in the wonderful land of George Eliot prose. The atmosphere of C15th Florence and references back to classical culture with some outrageous scholarship in evidence give her the office to indulge in even more gilded fine prose than ever and one can see common themes surfacing that make this less of an outlying curio among her stories than it first seemed to be. It's early days but the sheet I insert into each novel to make notes as I go is already filling up, and my biggest worry is how, when I come to trying to compile some sort of essay on the novels, I am going to see them all at once when each has supplanted the last in the memory and it is now thus a while since Scenes from Clerical Life made such a promising debut.
It is one thing that has impressed me with academics, how they can apparently retain so many books to talk about at any given time, if indeed they all can. But, in a pre-academic age, George divides the creative artists from the commentators in words given to Bardo,
'It is enough to overlay human hope and enterprise with an eternal frost to think that the ground which was trodden by phiolosophers and poets is crawled over by those insect-swarms of besotted fanatics or howling hypocrites.'  
and you wonder whose review of which of her books prompted her to write that.
I could never have been an academic. It seems in the end a dreary world and I inhabited an equally dreary one for what has been most of my paid employment except for how hilarity and absurdity cheered it up. However I was very tempted by a notice in Betfred's window yesterday to consider seeing out my last few years in a bookmaker's. I have weighed the options very seriously, which include the advantage of not having to take Cheltenham Festival week off because it will be on at work. But I've got this far by taking few risks and, even in these difficult times, it might be best to stick with that tried and so far successful policy. I can see how living in a bookies these days might not be all about horse racing but about servicing the clientele who are more or less paying your wages via their unfortunate habit. I feel more Methodist about it than I thought I would but I'll keep the idea in mind. 

Friday, 13 November 2015

Isserlis Shostakovich

Stephen Isselis/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Karabits, Shostakovich, Haydn, Prokofiev, Portsmouth Guildhall, November 13th.

I wonder if there was anybody in Portsmouth Guildhall this evening who would put the three pieces in any other order of preference than mine- the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no. 1, Haydn's Symphony no.104 and the Prokofiev Sinfonietta. Did anybody sit through the concerto only in order to get to the Haydn. Quite possibly some did because the diversity of taste and range of opinion available in the world goes beyond everybody having to agree with me (amazingly) but for me, these were three pieces in entirely different divisions.
It must cost Stephen Isserlis a lot of money to get a hairdresser to make his greying mop look quite so studiedly unkempt but it comes in useful as an added dramatic flourish at times, especially launching himself demonically into the Shostakovich, sometimes staring into the audience - straight at me quite often, it seemed- and at others, gazing into the beyond or the ceiling of the Guildhall, whichever comes first. It was great to have him back but he was necessarily in a different mood, often hunched over the cello and energetic, this time to when he came and played Haydn himself last year, rather than leave that job to the orchestra, and laid back and made his instrument sing more flowingly but, many might say, not quite as captivatingly.
There is some thematic interplay with the brass but as the piece builds from smooth legato to tumultuous torment and vibrancy in the second movement, it is all about exploiting the once demur violoncello, descended from the courteous viola da gamba, for everything it can give, from slapping, fingering up and down the fingerboard to practically sawing the very expensive instrument in half.
In an expansive score, there is the withdrawing, ethereal quiet and brief exchange with the glittering celesta, the breathless concentration of the cadenza that moves to sizzling, almost maniac intensity and, as is ever the case with the best pieces and performances, an ever tightening grip on the listener. But all of this done with whatever it is that Shostakovich does with his music- something chromatic or diatonic or some other term I'm not qualified to use- that is a signature as recognizable as any composer's.  The concerto was written in 1959 and so is the same age as me. It remains in considerably brighter condition than me, though, and is surely one of the great masterpieces for what has over the years become my favourite instrument. In a year that has not contained as many sensational events for me as other recent years, Isserlis is supplemented to my short list of Best Events of 2015 with every chance of stealing the completely unregarded honour from those listed here last week.
Haydn is the benchmark classical composer. 'Classical' in the proper sense of the word (late C18th) as well as the popular usage (orchestral music written by a foreign bloke in a wig in olden days). He is a court composer, the complete maestro, very professional but not dangerous. Almost impossible to dislike but equally unlikely to outdo Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and any number of others who surely bring something more exciting with them. Symphony no. 104 is perhaps where he sounds the most like Mozart, and even the fussiest of academics must think they sometimes sound similar. The second movement here, the Andante, is gorgeous in Haydn's never overstated way and the whole thing is a fine exercise in sense, control and decorum. Perhaps he could have been revolutionary if he had wanted, perhaps he could have been the Shostakovich or Stravinsky of his day or perhaps he didn't want to be or he knew that keeping his employers happy with the sophisticated, smart Giorgio Armani sort of music that he could produce by the ream was his best plan. I love Haydn, he is the reference point from which all 'classical' music can be mapped. But he's not Beethoven. You couldn't map everything in relation to Beethoven because it would leave nearly everything else looking inadequate. But Haydn was presumably the happier man, apparently having no need to explore darker, or more ecstatic, tempers than those he so elegantly left us with.
Whereas Prokofiev is sometimes suggested as a long shot among contenders for the Greatest of C20th composers. The BSO have recorded, or are in the process of recording, the complete symphonies under Karabits, I believe. And so it is possible that the conductor has a special interest in Prokofiev or has identified that repertoire as an area he can put his own mark on. That is as far as I can get in finding a reason for the inclusion of the Sinfonietta, which both I and my concert-going companion struggled to find anything above pleasantly non-descript. The first piece on a concert programme shouldn't overshadow that which is to come later and it is a difficult berth to fill, but even Terry Barfoot's expert programme notes looked as if they were trying too hard but in such cases, which happen often enough, it is customary for me to assume that the fault is with my appreciation and not the quality of the music. I missed the point.
Nothing will diminish the very welcome return of Stephen Isserlis to Portsmouth, though. I'll find out what his mesmerising little encore was if I can, was it more Pablo Casals. It might have been just another venue, another night's work in the provinces, for him but it was an essential highlight of the cultural year for us down here that don't get up to that there London very often.

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Oh Babe, What Would You Say

In Poetry Review a couple of issues ago, Tiffany Atkinson quoted Michael Longley saying that,
most good poetry is written by young people or old people.

Coming from one as wise and fine and good as Michael Longley one would expect it to be a wise and fine and good maxim. So I'm surprised to find that it is in direct contradiction of what I have thought for quite a long time, that most good poetry is not.
We need to set arbitrary parameters on what is meant by 'young' and 'old', which might not be the same as those that Longley had in mind. But I think it is uncontroversial to say that young is under 30 and once beyond 60 one is getting old, however much it might be said that by now 60 is the new 40.
And, of course, there will be outlying examples of poets who are those 'exceptions that prove the rule' which is by no means a rule but a generalization. Keats is a fine poet but he died aged 25; there will be plenty of examples of good poetry written by septuagenarians but Titian lived into his tenth decade still applying gorgeous blue to canvas.
Most poets will have published something of worth, set out their stall and might have made themselves some reputation by the age of 30 but any artist worthy of the name will develop from those starting points and do something better. The only other options are to continue in a similar vein or immediately decline apparently, in the Longley quote, having to wait until old age before they are worth reading again.
But it takes one of special ingenuity or continual refreshment of ideas to write into venerable senior citizenship without becoming repetitive, losing some impetus or, in some very respectable cases, finding that the will to write has left them and they'd rather not write than write anything sub-standard.
Readers of Jonathan Bate's book on Ted Hughes will appreciate the impact of the early poems of Hughes, which was arguably not sustained in later books but for every such example there are more whose careers show a deepening, widening compass of experience and technique as they mature. The compacted time scales of The Beatles' oeuvre illustrates a fine start, a brilliant middle period and a final lapse into self-indulgence. Some might say the same about Shakespeare. It is almost beyond reasonable doubt that my two favourite poets, Thom Gunn and Philip Larkin, published some very competent juvenilia, then became greater and realized for themselves when they had done enough and it wasn't happening for them any more. I have even heard it suggested, almost sacrilegiously, that Seamus Heaney became repetitive and, yes, he did consciously revisit old ground without writing anything less than good poetry.
So, I reluctantly take the opposite point of view to that attributed to Michael Longley and only wonder if somehow it was taken out of context because, for me, most good poetry is written by people who are no longer young but are not yet old.
But in a similarly dissenting mood, I have been amused by recent revelations in the world of sport which, for these purposes began with a long distance runner in our office commenting on a television documentary on Lance Armstrong and how cycling lacked all credibility, how could you ever trust it, etc, etc. Well, no, quite.
But it wasn't me who went back to him only a few days later when all the new brouhaha over performance enhancing drugs in Athletics kicked off. Ah ha, Mr. Marathon Runner, so it's not just the cyclists then, is it. It's your sport, too.
And it was never as if you needed to be a satirist of the calibre of Ben Jonson to appreciate the story of Ben Johnson and all the ambition and human frailty that leads an athlete into that dark nether world of chemistry, needles, masking agents and lax testing.
As soon as money is involved there are going to be those with nefarious plans to gain an unfair advantage. I think it was probably Lance Armstrong's lawyer rather than Lance himself who came up with the argument that cheating was defined as 'gaining an unfair advantage' and since everybody was at it, what he did was not unfair.
I am planning to fill the customary new year drought of things to write about here with a new series entitled (something like) My Life in Sport, with features on football, cricket, cycling, running, chess and all, where
the glory of it was that it was all amateur and I wasn't good enough at any of them to make it worth cheating.
But one of the most profound laughs I've had in the last twelve months was in the fallout from the Sepp Blatter, Qatar World Cup and all such saga when it came to light that there was such a thing as the FIFA Ethics Committee. Oh, Come On.
Which comedian was it that said he felt like giving up on satire when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
But that is the world and what it's like. It's surprising that we can still be surprised about it. But while Athletics sadly sinks deeper into moral torment, let us not hear from those who plod round the London marathon so heroically in half a day cast aspersions on the bike riders.
217.888 miles in 12 Hours in 1995, thank you very much. Done with plentiful supplies of bananas, water, flapjack and, admittedly, drinks designed to help ride a bike a long way as sold in Boots. And I'm always grateful for an excuse to present this old photo again.


Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Saturday Nap

Penglai Pavilion is expected to run at Cheltenham on Friday (2.15), attempting to repeat his course and distance win from three weeks ago. He should be followed until beaten and all I will do is take the first price I see when they are posted just after high tea has been taken on Thursday.
21 days is an ideal interval between races, there is more opposition from Ireland and entries from other big English stables but Penglai's win was convincing, and comfortable enough to suggest there is still plenty more to come when required. One can expect him to be back at Cheltenham in March with races like this among his credentials. It is impossible to rersist, with the only proviso that, yes, I know he won't keep winning forever.

Pat Eddery

I was saddened on getting home to find out about the death of Pat Eddery at the age of 63. Firstly there were tributes on the Racing Post website but then he was honoured by being included in the Radio 4 news. Since, in a long career, there was only Gordon Richards who had ridden more winners on the flat in Britain, he certainly warranted that.
He was my favourite flat race jockey, sensitive and with 'good hands', perhaps comparable to my favourite jump jockey, John Francome, as opposed to the ultra-competitive, aggressive styles of Lester Piggott and A.P. McCoy respectively.
Eddery rode the winners in the two most memorable flat races I ever remember. Firstly, in the 1975 King George, he saw off Bustino and Joe Mercer in the 'race of the century' (pictured) and eleven years later came with a typically well-timed run to take the Arc de Triomphe. The first went unbacked by me, being 15 at the time, but the latter was particularly welcome as I was 'between jobs' at the time and was also in a double with Dallas to win the Cambridgeshire.
The ride on Dancing Brave came about after the conspicuously less-talented Greville Starkey had lost the Derby, somehow expecting the horse to break the equine 400m record at the end of a mile and a half but after the appointment of Eddery to ride Khaled Abdullah's horses, there were plenty more to enjoy. I saw Prince Khaled and Dancing Brave at Goodwood when they went there for the Arc warm-up race and subsequently enjoyed horses like Warning winning in the same colours.
One had the impression that Eddery was the most likeable of jockeys, unassuming, understanding and astute. It's not every sportimg champion you can say that about.

Friday, 6 November 2015

Best Poetry Shortlists 2015

It is plenty early enough to be posting the shortlists for my own idiosyncratic poetry awards but it's not too late for anything else that comes to my attention to be added to the lists before the selection of the winners next month.
Unlike other, more prestigious prizes that have cash to go with them, these honours are bestowed on books that I have found out about, then chose to read and only then can they be considered although they are considered most sincerely and very seriously.

Best Poem

Sean O'Brien, The Beautiful Librarians, from The Beautiful Librarians
Caitriona O'Reilly,  The Airship Era, from Geis
Don Paterson, Here, from 40 Sonnets

Best Collection

Kate Bingham, Infragreen (Seren)
Sean O'Brien,  The Beautiful Librarians (Picador)
Caitriona O'Reilly, Geis (Bloodaxe)
Don Paterson, 40 Sonnets (Faber)

I generally extend these specifically poetry-based lists to other areas-
There won't be a Best Novel this year because I simply haven't read a new novel this year, it having been my year of George Eliot, although David Mitchell's Slade House is a possibility in which case it would have a walkover.
Best Television isn't quite a walkover but the only opposition to Cradle to Grave, the autobiography highbrow enough to be on BBC2, came from the other Greatest Living Englishperson when Vicky Coren presented her series on How to Be a Bohemian.
I'm surprised few CD reviews there are here this year and the earlier ones were 2014 releaeses and so The Orlando Consort's recording of Loyset Compere seem to have it although there is a new Tallis Scholars release which might yet get itself ordered.
The Non-Fiction Book category is a match between Shapiro's 1606 and Bate's Ted Hughes.
Which only leaves the Best Event category, often the most interesting.

Best Event

Chris Chadwick, debut in 25 mile circuit bike race, Castle Combe
Fujita Piano Trio, Chichester Cathedral
Index Cantorum, Winchester Cathedral
Tasmin Little/Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, Portsmouth Guildhall
Southern Countertenors, Portsmouth Cathedral


The Saturday Nap

I don't know how I've got this far without knowing why one's best bet is called the 'nap'. It can't possibly be that you're so sure of winning that you can have a little sleep.
I like etymology without always being satisfied by being told that a word comes from Old English or Greek. Such answers only beg the question, yes but why did they call it that, in the same way that the explanation that God put everything here isn't good enough because it doesn't explain where God came from, or anything else for that matter.
But the interweb, which is always to be trusted, says that 'nap' comes from a card game called Napoleon which makes us somewhat the wiser and is good enough for me.

Now is the time that the winter game trainers start to hit form and with the likes of Philip Hobbs, Charlie Longsdon and John Ferguson all winning regularly, we might hope to avoid races where they all have runners.
On the other hand, I caught the end of an interview with Nicky Henderson on At the Races earlier in the week and he said his horses were 'ten days off' which explains why the one I did came second and why we will be looking at his runners next week, not this.
And the size of the puddles on the way home this evening suggests there might be a change in the going and proven soft ground horses might the ones to watch.
With some disastrous Saturdays behind us and a hat-trick to land, the nap is going to take some choosing this week but there are plenty of options and here's what I reckon.
I'm sure all jump racing followers would be pleased to see Simonsig make a winning return but he's worth opposing if one thinks Nicky H is giving him and Bobsworth a seasonal reappearance with a view to finding out where to go next. It might leave the race more at Purple Bay's mercy than it first looks but he may be one for the yankee rather than the nap.
In a very interesting hurdle at Wincanton, the 3.15, I'd like to take a big, old-fashioned plunge on Francis of Assisi at about 6/1 but we know Irving is a class act just below the top grade and the animal-loving saint will be another to take part in the team effort of the speculative multiple bet for small stakes.
Because while there are others in races that I'll be happy to take on, and so side with How About It (Aintree 1.20) and Our Kaempfer (1.55), there are two more solid-looking favourites to scrutinize for proper nap potential.
Definite Outcome (Aintree 12.45) looks a confident, plenty short enough, favourite, in the hope that Flying Angel doesn't quite live up to its name because I remember One Cool Scorpion's win last time out and was less than impressed.
And Arpege D'Alene (Wincanton 1.30) is jumping fences for the first time in public but Paul Nicholls usually collects his pocket money from this race and looks the best vehicle for my cash in its search for an escape route to safety at 7/4.
So, I've talked myself into it.  Arpege D'Alene is this most vital of naps with Purple Bay, Our Kaempfer and Definite Outcome in the yankee and Francis of Assisi added in for the trebles and accumalator out of 5 with whatever small change is left over.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes

Jonathan Bate, Ted Hughes, The Unauthorised Life (William Collins)

The relationship between Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath is scarred terrain by now, a battleground gone over by armies of biographers and commentators taking either side or, just occasionally, claiming to take neither. Jonathan Bate's unauthorised account is not endorsed by the Hughes estate but seems to find a balanced approach among the welter of unbalanced evidence. While certainly not an apologist for Ted, as one might read Elaine Feinstein's biography, Bate is most critical of the feminist campaign against him but very early on one is already taking the point that the personalities in the mix, at first a great creative partnership, were too dangerous when put together for anything but a tragic outcome.
For those of us not there at the time (which is by now most of us), it's hard to appreciate the impact of Hughes' first poems on the literary world. Although he had forebears in the likes of D.H. Lawrence and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the like of him had not been seen before. Bate draws parallels between Hughes and Plath and Wordsworth and Coleridge where the former are 'elegiac' and the latter 'mythic'. I think he was right the first time when he made Hughes 'mythic' but it's a useful register to keep in mind.
Hughes' early celebrity puts the ambitious Sylvia under some pressure but by the end of the book, and long after Sylvia's death, the point has been made more than once that, after Crow, Hughes was producing uneven poetry not redeemed until the Tales from Ovid, his reputation substantially dependent on his first three volumes after which he was 'blocked' and it is only some release found in writing the Ovid, published in 1997, that recovers his best work with the realization that he had been suffering from Sylvia's suicide for that long, 35 years. For me, and I'm sure for many others, Sylvia was always the better poet.
There are some fine paradoxes to be found in comparisons to be made between Hughes and his polar opposite and great 'rival' in poetry, Philip Larkin. When Hughes is having difficulty choosing between three girlfriends, one can't help but remember that, for some time. so was Larkin; they both developed into right-wing political 'thinkers' and were the two most influential English poets of their generation representing two very different attitudes. But for all that Hughes' charisma, animal magnetism and intense charm made him a hugely successful sexual predator, Larkin dithered and spent as much time trying to keep women out of his life as in it. Judging the Arvon Poetry Competition together (with Seamus Heaney and Charles Causley), Hughes finds it,
interesting to observe Larkin (whose literary taste Ted described as 'spermicide')

but we might now consider the relative merits of the overwhelming in relation to the ironic and understated and realize the inevitable limits of machismo and credit Larkin with more than enough scepticism to forego the obsession with horoscopes, mysticism and other assorted hokum. The restlessness of Hughes' life contrasts with Larkin's administrative, provinicial professional life not tainted with quite the same thoroughgoing lurid detail of the most alpha of alpha males.
Ted's first meeting with Sylvia, at the literary launch party, is on page 103. By page 111 we are already aware that it has become dangerously passionate on both sides and by page 141, Sylvia is already suspicious of Ted's affairs with other women. That didn't take long but one might not have been aware of it at all thus far in Elaine Feinstein's equivalent book.
Ted's sister, and henceforth agent, Olwyn, doesn't like Sylvia, who is 'high maintenance', and perhaps sees any of Ted's lovers as an unwelcome intrusion, but the irresistable Assia Weevil is an affair that can't help itself either in an awful Shakesperean hendiadys, the sort of doubling that complicates a plot endlessly, but not quite as endlessly as when we later realize that the influential critic, Al Alvarez, was involved with both Sylvia and Assia as well. It is no wonder that Nathaniel Tarn is credited with saying how it brought to mind a Greek play. There would have been plenty available to make the same observation if he hadn't.
Ted is the 'caged jaguar', wanting to be free of domestic responsibilities, and also presumably wanting to be free of threats to kill him from Assia's husband, David, who apparently had the knife to do it with. But although Ted might long for some imagined 'bohemian' life for himself, he was ready enough to propose a 'constitution' full of rules by which he and Assia could live together. It involved cooking duties, bedtime for the children, getting up time, to only be altered 'by agreement', cataloguing of expenses, none of which suggest a carefree way of living, and one must admire Assia's resilient reply,
Teddy dear, forget the detail.

But however much faith one puts in Bate's scholarly accumulation of such intimate domestic detail, that which is not evidenced by such documents is as unreliable as any other rumour or gossip because Ted is a habitual liar when it suits his purposes and so, it seems, do most other witnesses only see their own partial view of complicated goings on and give their version of them.
Ted's good taste is proven by the need for a mention here of his liking for Maddy Prior's singing as he published his own book, Gaudete, as well as the inclusion of Spem in Alium, a favourite piece of music, in his memorial service but Gaudete is surely one of the most misogynist poems in the language, not somehow surprisingly the only piece in the Collected Poems represented in extracts. This is unfortunate material to have to report in the chapter before Bate has to narrate the 'Arraignment' in the dreadful poetry but incendiary accusation of Robin Morgan,
I accuse
Ted Hughes
the murder of Sylvia Plath

and, yes, there still are people who think that if they've found a suitable rhyme like that 'accuse/Hughes', then they already have a poem.
But it is perhaps under the legal, personal and political pressure like this, unbearable as it must have been, that one might feel some sympathy for the failure of machismo, the inability to do the right thing, the innate inability that we all have to be anything other than what we are, that eventually we feel some sympathy for Ted, which was supposedly endorsed by the publication of the Birthday Letters.

However, tremendous best seller that it was, those poems were still more free verse confession and an attempt at absolvement than they were great poetry and their best-seller status was more about voyeurism than an appreciation of art for art's sake.
Before a very useful precis of Hughes' elaborate argument in the Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being, which makes its very personal interpretation of Shakespeare seem in some ways plausible (although, of course, everybody finds themselves in Shakespeare and Hughes only does so at much greater length), Bate devotes a chapter to a litany of lovers in later life, not only suggesting as possibilities Angela Carter and Edna O'Brien but a very significant one in a flat in South London who, thankfully, remains unnamed.
At last, there is a stone unturned, something not to be known because, quite honestly, who would want to ever write a poem that was any good if your life was going to be investigated to this degree.
As with Larkin, every available letter is scrutinized, every rumour is investigated, every casual remark or greeting on a birthday card has to be published. In thirty five years or so, we have moved from an orthodoxy in which the text of the poems was the only object of enquiry to an intense investigation of the author and every nuance of all their traumas. Ted Hughes might have had more traumas than most but everybody has them.
Not much of this sheds light on the composition of The Thought-Fox or Hawk Roosting because Sylvia was still alive when they were written. Not long after that, the rest, for Sylvia, was silence but Ted's pain went on for decades, fishing for salmon with the Queen Mother on the choicest rivers, publishing special editions for as much money as he could ask but generally not being much of a Poet Laureate. Not his fault but neither did he deserve either the acclaim or quite the approbrium that he received. Whereas Sylvia, as far as we can tell, under the pressures that she was under, was quite some extraordinary talent and much of the credit for preserving and editing that work must go to Ted.
Jonathan Bate has done us a great service in providing this book which one, as ever, feels some guilt reading. It wanders a bit towards the end, losing its chronological thread, trying to tie up loose themes and then adds a coda that perhaps could have been shorter but, if you want to be as definitive as you're allowed, it has to be done.
It's unputdownable but I can't possibly go through it all again so now it's also unpickupable.
Ted Hughes will surely be remembered in future times as a significant poet of the C20th but, more than that, I hope and think, What will survive of us is Larkin.